Jobs in the new normal

RECENTLY, I was invited to speak in a panel session about jobs and the economy beyond 2021. Why 2021? This is because everyone is hoping that vaccines will become widely available by next year and hopefully, economies and jobs around the world will see rapid recovery and growth.

This article is a gist of how I see the job market moving forward and what we as a country can do to prepare our people to make the necessary transition. Before thinking about what will happen after the pandemic is contained, it is necessary to ask what the impact of Covid-19 is on jobs. Here, there are three key data points that have shaped my perspective of how things are changing.

First, the impact on jobs is massive. According to the International Labour Organisation, an estimated 300 million jobs have been impacted, in terms of job losses or reduced wages. In Malaysia, the Social Security Organisation (Socso) has indicated that close to 10,000 people have lost their jobs every month in 2020.

Second, it is unfortunate that people who have been the most impacted are vulnerable groups including youth, women, low-income (or B40), low-skilled and those who have no internet access.

Thirdly, the demand for digitally-skilled workers is on a steep upward trend. Microsoft forecasts 149 million new jobs that require digital tech skills ranging from software development, Cloud, data, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and privacy/trust by 2025. In addition, the World Economic Forum (WEF) in its recent Future of Jobs 2020 report found that 100% of companies surveyed in Malaysia indicated that they would be adopting digitalisation of work processes due to Covid-19.

Looking at the impact of Covid-19 on jobs, it would be pertinent to ask how ready Malaysia is to address and ride these changes in ways that benefit our people. Here, there is reasonable cause for concern across the various segments of society.

Within the existing workforce, a 2018 survey by Randstad found that 89% of workers in Malaysia believe they do not have the required skills for a digital environment and according to a Huawei-SME Corporation report in 2019, more than half our small and medium enterprises indicated that they do not have people who have the digital skills to support their digitalisation.

Further upstream in the talent pipeline, 27% of university students and every two in five school children have no access to any device for e-learning, which may have repercussions on their readiness for a digital workplace.

Make no mistake, Malaysia is not alone in facing these challenges. Other countries, including developed nations are grappling with similar if not more serious challenges. The WEF Future of Jobs 2020 reported that on average, 40% of existing workers globally will require reskilling of less than 6 months.

Much has been said about the need for a paradigm shift in preparing the current and future workforce for this race towards digitalisation. Tech forerunners like Elon Musk and Google have denounced the value of university degrees and instead proclaimed the need for accelerated and skill-focused education to prepare the future workforce. Similarly, more and more corporates including Malaysian government-linked companies like CIMB, TNB and Telekom Malaysia are making big investments to equip employees with digital skills.

Here are some ideas on what we can do to re-build and drive Malaysia’s job market in 2021 and beyond:

> Mass awareness of digital job and income opportunities

While middle and upper-income communities would have greater exposure to the changing job and skill landscape, rural and low-income groups may not have the same opportunities and may be oblivious to digital income means to mitigate the devastating impact to livelihoods.

Hence, there is a need for mass awareness campaigns and subsidies to help vulnerable and underserved groups to make the transition to jobs that require skills for an increasingly digital and automated workplace. For example, digital marketing, data analysis and skills to work with automation.

> Digital life skills for the emerging workforce

As we grapple with graduate unemployment, there is an urgent need to equip our emerging workforce with essential digital skills. I call these digital life skills and they extend beyond digital literacy. The pandemic has emphasised the importance of understanding and using data across white-collar jobs, as well as digital marketing and issues around online safety and ethics across the wider workforce.

These skills are essential to all new entrants to the workforce, regardless of the discipline of study. It would serve us well to ensure all youths have these skills by the time they are entering the job market.

> Online learning for all

Globally and in Malaysia too, the pandemic has resulted in a spike in online learning in school as well as in the workplace. Online learning can be an enabler for inclusive skills development, provided we have the necessary pieces in place.

Besides having the right infrastructure in terms of devices and internet connectivity for learning, there is also a need to have policies that enable online learning, assessment, examinations and so on.

In addition, teachers and lecturers must also be trained to deliver online lessons. Keeping students engaged in the learning process online requires more than one-way communication by teachers.

We need to create self-learners and have more project-based learning approaches to ensure students pick up critical skills to facilitate learning in our new norm. We also need more quality educational content in Bahasa Malaysia, to cater to the majority of public-school students who are more fluent in Bahasa Malaysia.

> Regulatory reforms for the post-Covid-19 job market

In the longer term, we also need to consider wider regulatory reforms to enable Malaysia to move faster in reskilling the existing workforce as well as fresh graduates for the fast-changing job landscape.

With the growing prominence of gig jobs, there is a need for relevant laws such as the Human Resources Development Fund Act, Employment Act, Labour Act and Socso Act to recognise, protect and support gig workers. These include ensuring relevant social security, insurance schemes as well as providing support for continuous upskilling.

At the same time, we need to find ways to empower companies to make their own investment decisions about employee reskilling and upskilling. For example, employers may choose to pursue methods that are currently outside the ambit of existing public funding for human resource development, such as on-the-job training via running small pilot projects, subscribing to global online learning platforms or establishing in-house training units or academies, similar to CIMB’s 3D (Digital, Data and Disruption) Academy.

At the same time, there is a need to revisit and update existing laws related to higher education and skills development, such as the Universities Act, the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) Act and the National Skills Development Act to encourage adoption of more alternative and contemporary higher education models that are more modular, shorter and more skills-oriented - including the likes of 42KL, Forward School and many others. This can be a key game changer to address the high graduate unemployment rate in the country.

The ideas presented above are by no means a silver bullet to addressing the challenging job market and will require careful consideration and cohesive execution. They should be seen as building blocks to steer our workforce towards a post-pandemic and more digitalised job market.

Dr Sumitra Nair is the vice president of digital talent development at the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation.

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